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The Science of Happy Design

So much of the news about technology tells us that websites, mobile apps, and social media are bad for us. Supposedly, technology makes us anxious, our smartphones take us out of the present moment, and social media ensnares us in a dopamine loop. A Google search of “happiness and technology” pulls up hundreds of articles about how technology is making us miserable. Can that be true? What if instead, the design of a favorite website or a trusted mobile app might make us happy—and influence our long-term actions?

Happy, But Not an Accident

As someone who attempts to make experiences with technology better, it makes me sad to think that my work might be making people unhappy. There has been some research to show that rising tech correlates to happiness, but most studies are designed to reinforce the idea that technology seems to erode happiness. If you look at what makes people happy rarely is an app or a website in the mix. Happiness, it seems, is not a screen.

Yet, I’ve seen first-hand that a website can provide moments of joy. I’ve observed people smiling at their smartphones. I’ve listened to stories about how an app changed someone’s life in a positive way. While there has been wise discussion about how design makes us happy or how good design demonstrates some of the principles of positive psychology, there is not a lot of data about it available.

With this in mind, two years ago I began tracking happiness and design in an online study, hoping to understand what makes people happy online. My company created a purpose-built app to capture an event stream, collect data about interactions, create opportunities for describing the experience, and ask questions – about happiness, but also ease of use, engagement, and likelihood to return to or recommend. All of these measures have helped me test my hypothesis that happiness in the short-term might influence behavior in the long-term.

But I also wanted to uncover what actually makes people happy as they are using a site or app. That meant including observational research to look for patterns that produced a smile, an “aha” moment, moments lost in the flow, or anything that contributed to the sensation of happiness. Lastly, I tracked social listening, for sentiment and conversations rather than number of fans, favorites, likes or followers. This combined approach is part UX research, part story collecting, and part data ethnography.

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The WebRecital is a dedicated User Interface/User Experience professionals who come together to provide design and research workshops, portfolio reviews, and educational outreach to the greater Seattle area.
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